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Decatur Scholar Turns Rhymes Into Dope Dissertation

A.D. Carson in studio
Ken Scar
Clemson University
A.D. Carson

A.D. Carson grew up in Decatur, graduated from Millikin University, and earned a master's degree here at the University of Illinois Springfield. He’s now a Ph.D candidate at Clemson University, where today he’s defending his dissertation -- a hip-hop project that’s gone viral.

One word of warning: The music in this story contains a racial term some listeners might find offensive, but it’s part of Carson’s scholarly work.

A.D. Carson will be defending his dissertation in a 200-seat auditorium, and he’s expecting a packed house. Some will be classmates from Clemson’s Rhetorics, Communication and Information Design department; others will be fans of rap. The main component of Carson’s dissertation is a 34-song hip-hop album that he composed and performed himself.

It’s the culmination of four years of work, and includes a website packed with research -- interviews, videos, a timeline, a bibliography, a reading list -- plus lyrics to all 34 tracks, open for annotation by any interested listeners.

Each track is stacked with layers upon layer of meaning: Snippets of music, samples of audio, and words loaded with multiplied messages.

Take the term “dope.” It’s a compliment, a synonym for cool. It can also refer to a drug that a dope dealer dilutes with sucrose or chalk. Or, take the title of his dissertation: "Owning My Masters: Rhetorics of Rhymes and Revolutions." In the music business, "masters recordings" can be the subject of contract negotiations between an artist and a record label in a battle over who owns the artist's work. "That is definitely one layer of it," Carson says, "the idea of this being a means by which I can own my own voice."

But there's another, much deeper meaning.

"Clemson University is John Calhoun's former plantation," Carson says. "So the idea of attaining an advanced degree from a university that is built upon a plantation could be a way that one might envision 'owning' one's master. But then that also plays on the word 'owning.' It's sort of like the reversal of that particular circumstance."

And achieving that reversal via rap? Now that's dope.


After a long career in newspapers (Dallas Observer, The Dallas Morning News, Anchorage Daily News, Illinois Times), Dusty returned to school to get a master's degree in multimedia journalism. She began work as Education Desk reporter at NPR Illinois in September 2014.
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